Sermon 03-16-14: “Faith and Works”

March 21, 2014


Today’s scripture from James serves as a necessary antidote to the “easy-believism” that often afflicts popular Christian theology: “Jesus paid it all, and I don’t owe a dime!” While it’s certainly true that we’re saved by faith alone, saving faith will include good works. James isn’t pitting “faith” against “works,” as is popularly thought: he’s pitting living faith against dead faith. What kind of faith do you have?

Sermon Text: James 2:14-26

The following is my original sermon manuscript with footnotes.

When I was at Georgia Tech, there was a series of three physics classes that every engineering major had to take. The second of these was famously difficult. It was called electromagnetism, “E-mag” for short. E-mag was considered a weed-out course—a way of separating the men from the boys. And I know that sounds sexist, but I almost mean it literally. Because it is around the time you’re struggling in a class like E-mag when you begin to notice that there aren’t many girls in class with you, and there aren’t many girls on campus… And you wonder why you didn’t go to a school like UGA, where the odds are much more favorable—and where you don’t have to take classes like E-mag!

I said the class was called E-mag, but the class’s nickname was really “Re-mag,” because so many students flunked it the first time and had to repeat it. And if you were taking the class as “Three-mag,” you were really in trouble!

One of the things that made E-mag seem especially unfair was the grading system. You took four exams, consisting of five problems each. And when you worked out your final answer, you hoped it corresponded to one of the five choices on a multiple choice test. And then you’d bubble in A, B, C, D, or E on a Scan-Tron sheet. And all the work you did to arrive at the answer was irrelevant. No one looked at your work! It didn’t count for anything! There was no partial credit! The only thing that mattered was, Did you get the right answer?

We students would complain: It’s not fair! When it comes to working out a long, involved physics problem, how you arrive at your answer is at least as important as the answer itself! What if you did everything exactly right but only made one small calculation error?

But the professor was completely unsympathetic: He would say, “If your mistake causes the space shuttle to explode, it’s not going to comfort the victims’ families to know that you only made one small calculation error!” I see his point, but still

Surely the work we do should count for something! Merely having the right answers isn’t enough!

And this is James’s point in this most famous, and most controversial, part of his letter: “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” The implied answer, of course, is, no, it can’t. In verse 24, after illustrating his point, he writes: “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.”

Now, if you know your Bible, these words from James might trouble us. Because Paul seems to contradict James when he writes in Romans 3:28, “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” Or, in Ephesians 2:8 and 9: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”[1]

So, on the surface, Paul is saying, we’re justified by faith alone. James is saying we’re justified by works and not faith alone.

“Well,” someone might say, “that proves it! There’s a glaring contradiction in scripture. The Bible can’t be trusted. Let’s just throw it out!” Is that what we should conclude? No, of course not.

What’s happening is that Paul and James are using the word “justify” differently from one another. When Paul used the word “justify,” he meant the word in a legal sense: a defendant in court was “justified” when the judge declared him “not guilty.” God our judge, likewise, declares us “not guilty” when we place our faith in Christ.

When James uses the word “justify,” he means it the way we often mean it today: to “justify” means to “prove something to be true,” to demonstrate the truth of something. Getting back to those E-mag tests, we students wanted to justify our answer by showing our work. Only by looking at our work could we prove that we knew what we were doing! And so it is here. The Common English Bible gets this meaning across nicely: it translates verse 24 to say that a person is “shown to be righteous through faithful actions and not through faith alone.”

That being the case, this text raises the most important question imaginable… Are you saved?

If you are, your actions will prove that you are—not simply the words that you speak. Saving faith, by definition, is a faith that lives itself out through actions. If we don’t have the actions, we need to do some serious soul-searching.

Jesus makes the exact same point when he says, “A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.”[2] He also warned us, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven…” On Judgment Day, Jesus will tell some surprised people, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.”[3]

When I was up north in Alpharetta, I was on the speed dial of a nearby funeral home. A funeral director there would call me when a family didn’t have a church home and needed a pastor to conduct the funeral. Usually, the person who died hadn’t darkened the door of church in years. I mean, sure, he’d been baptized when he was a baby… Maybe he’d even grown up in church and gotten confirmed. And I’m sure if the Gallup Poll people phoned him to ask what his “religious preference” was, he’d say, “I’m a Christian,” or “I’m a Methodist,” or “I’m a Presbyterian,” or “I’m a Baptist.” And when I asked the grieving family about his faith, they would assure me that he was a believer, although of course he never went to church, and that they were sure he was in heaven. But my question—which would also be James’s question—is, Why is he in heaven? What’s the basis for that confidence? How do you know?

Someone might object: “So what are you saying, Brent, that in order to be saved you have to go to church?”

No… But I am saying that if you are saved, why wouldn’t you want to do what our Lord commands you to do—whether it’s go to church or anything else? If you’re unwilling to do what our Lord teaches us through his Word, isn’t that a symptom of a potentially serious spiritual problem? If your Christian faith doesn’t reach down into the deepest recesses of your heart and change the way you live, then maybe it’s not a saving kind of faith!

I want to tell these grieving families—like I’m telling you now—that “Your church, any church—whether it’s Baptist, Catholic, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, or—heaven help us!—Methodisthas sold you a bill of goods if they’ve taught you that being a Christian, being saved, is as easy as getting baptized, or walking down the aisle on a Sunday morning, or getting confirmed, or even believing all the right things about God and Jesus! That once you’ve done that easy thing, whatever it is, then it doesn’t matter what you do for the rest of your life, you’ll be O.K. for eternity.

Does that sound like that’s what James is saying in today’s scripture? No!

We have this caricature of Jesus in our popular culture that he was some kind of first-century hippie that went around preaching peace and love and tolerance and getting in touch with yourself—instead of the one who said, not only, “Your sins are forgiven,” but also, “Go and sin no more”! The forgiveness part is easy; the repentance part is hard! But necessary. And you might say, “What about grace!” And I’m like, “Yes, grace! But in order to receive grace we have to know why it is that God needs to be gracious toward us in the first place!” “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a”—what? A perfectly nice guy who is good enough just the way he is? No, a wretch. When God saves wretches like us with his amazing grace, he intends for us—no, he demands for us—to become less wretched over time. If that’s not happening, then that is a sign of a potentially serious spiritual problem!

I read something last week from a New Testament professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary named Robert Gagnon. We didn’t have professors like Dr. Gagnon at Candler, so his words hit me like a punch in the gut. He was writing about some things that Paul says in his letter to the Romans, but he may as well have been writing about the letter of James, because his words reflect James’s thinking. Dr. Gagnon writes:

The confession “Jesus is Lord” is no magical charm. If one lives as a slave to sin, it is sin and not Christ or God that is Lord of one’s life and it is sin that will pay one back with death. In other words, the “free gift” [of salvation] does not remain with those who do not experience liberation from sin’s power… Those who lead lives under sin’s primary control will die and be excluded from the life of God’s kingdom, whether they are believers or not… Although salvation does not come by personal merit, unrighteous conduct can disqualify one from salvation.[4]

I don’t like these words. I resist these words. I want to believe that once you’re saved, you’ll always be saved no matter what. I don’t want to believe that you can be saved at one point in your life and later, through “unrighteous conduct” be disqualified from salvation, as Dr. Gagnon says. I don’t want to believe it, but I can’t make an argument against it based on the Bible. John Wesley couldn’t either. Because John Wesley and our Wesleyan tradition teach that “backsliding” in this way is frighteningly possible—that we can lose our salvation. That a faith that was at one time alive can later be found dead—and that’s the kind of faith, James says, that won’t save us.

If we take this message to heart, we might have to change the language in our bulletins each week. What I mean is, every week in our traditional worship services, we have something called an “affirmation of faith.” But I’m no longer convinced that “affirmation” is the right word for it. According to James, it could only ever be a partial affirmation of faith. Because think about it: we could say all those words—“I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord… I believe in the Holy Spirit,” etc.—we could say them and even agree, intellectually, that they’re true. Big deal! James says, so could Satan and his legion of demons.

Think about that: Satan and his fellow demons—prior to disobeying God and becoming demons—were angels who had been to the finest seminary imaginable; they had the best teachers imaginable; they had learned the truth about God the Father, and God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit first hand… in the very courts of heaven itself. They know the truth of God as much as or more than anyone else!

But are they saved? Of course not. They know first-hand that the Apostles’ Creed is true and the only difference it makes in their lives is that it causes them to shudder, to tremble in fear.

James is being ironic here: He’s saying, “At least the faith that the demons possess motivates them to do something—even if it is only to shudder.” That’s more than can be said for some of the people in the churches James is writing to… because their faith doesn’t even motivate them to tremble in fear.

Obviously, we need a faith that far surpasses that of the demons. We need a faith that isn’t simply up here [point to head], but is also in here [point to heart]. That’s the living kind of faith that James is talking about.

Do we have that kind of faith? If not, and if you’re still living and breathing and can hear the sound of my voice, please hear me say this good news: it’s not too late for you to repent and let God put you in a right relationship with him by his amazing grace!

So far I’ve made it sound like this “living faith” will naturally produce good works. And that’s true. But James is saying a little bit more than that. For example, he says that Abraham’s faith was “at work along with his actions,” and that his faith was made complete by his faithful actions.” James is saying, in other words, that good works actually build our faith, strengthen our faith. Good works are the fuel that keep our faith going strong.

Faith produces good works. But not only that: good works also produce more faith… more trust in our Lord.

So if you feel like your faith isn’t very strong, let me ask you… Are you putting your faith into action? Are you serving the Lord in some meaningful way? Are you doing something to share the love of Jesus with others in your life right now.

This is an especially tough question for me because—as I said last week to laughter—I’m a professional Christian. In some ways, I’m paid to be a Christian. So, next Saturday, for example, I’m going to be joining you and the rest of the church in showing God’s love in a practical way in Hampton, Georgia, by handing out little packets of Kleenex at the Yellow Pollen Festival. Given my own experience right now with allergies, I am quite confident that people will be in need of Kleenex next weekend!

Am I doing this thing next Saturday because I’m putting my faith into action, or because it’s my job, and I’m paid to do it?

What helps me distinguish one from the other is this: If I’m doing something that’s outside of my comfort zone, then chances are I’m putting my faith into action. What we’re doing next weekend is a small thing, obviously, not very risky. It might even be fun. But I’ve never done it before! I don’t like new things. I don’t like not knowing what to expect. I don’t like approaching strangers and talking to them. It’s outside my comfort zone. Yet I feel like this is what the Lord wants me to do… So I’m going to do it. I have found in my life that whenever God leads me outside of my comfort zone, the best things happen in life!

So why don’t you join me? Let’s step outside of our comfort zones together. Let’s put our faith into action together!

James refers to the story of Abraham. God promised Abraham that he would give him descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky, and that the world be blessed through his offspring—even though Abraham and his wife were past childbearing age and had no children. So Abraham waited 25 years for God to give him the promised son, Isaac—his dream come true. The boy grew up, and when Isaac was perhaps only a teenager, God told Abraham to do the unthinkable: to offer Isaac as a sacrifice to God. And Abraham obeyedat least before God intervened to stop him from carrying it out. So Abraham proved how much he loved God by his willingness to sacrifice his most precious possession, his beloved, his only son—and along with him, the dream that he’d spent 40 years of his life pursuing. Abraham’s costly obedience proved how much he loved God.

Now consider this: God didn’t ask Abraham to do anything that God himself wasn’t willing to do—when God the Father sent his only Son Jesus to the cross in order to pay the price for our sins, our disobedience, to ransom us from death and hell, to win a victory for us over the forces of evil, and bring us into a saving relationship with God.

By doing so, hasn’t God proven how much he loves you and me? And if we grasp the truth of that, how can that not change the way we live? How can we not want to share that love with others? How can we not want to show our work?

Our Lord is calling us to show our work here at Hampton United Methodist. God, make us faithful!

[1] Ephesians 2:8-9 ESV

[2] Matthew 7:18-19

[3] Matthew 7:21, 23

[4] Robert A.J. Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice (Nashville: Abingdon, 2001), 282.

One Response to “Sermon 03-16-14: “Faith and Works””

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    The question that separates some Baptists from some Methodists on this front is: “Were you ever really saved to start with if you ‘backslide’ all the way to ‘disbelief’ (or, perhaps better, to ‘non-practice’)?” I get that there are many verses which support a “yes” answer to that question (per Wesley’s understanding). However, I think there are also verses which point to a “no” answer. We are “sealed” by the Holy Spirit. We are given the Spirit as a “down payment” for the good things to come. Those passages certainly seem to “seal” the deal, so to speak.

    Of course, the fact is that either way, there are a lot of people “in church” (or, for that matter, “out” of church) who believe they are saved when they really are not. And certainly a lack of a “changed life” is heavy proof of no such salvation. You can’t really make Jesus your “Lord” without “giving your life” to him, committing to “follow” him. And there can be steps “in that direction” which nonetheless “come to naught,” as in the parable of the soils. (Which, of course, is variously interpreted based on whether the absence of a reference to “fruit” in the rocky soil and thorns means they were never saved; or, conversely, were, but lost it as they encountered life’s circumstances.)

    In any event, I wholeheartedly agree that we must “test ourselves, whether we be in the faith,” as Paul admonishes, and the presence or absence of the “fruit of the Spirit” is a telltale sign.

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